A Retvrn to Transcendentalism: The Right’s Next Move | Dinah Kolka
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
We truly live in the ashes of civilization. The conservative government is failing entirely to uphold the conservative values – be it economically, socially, or culturally. Not only to mention that right-wing ideas are wildly unpopular these days, especially among the youth. There is certain solace one can get when reading Ralph Waldo Emerson or even Thoreau. There is a certain trend emerging in the right-wing circles, the desire to move to the countryside, unbothered by anyone and anything, to live quietly and raise your family. This is very much a transcendentalist idea.
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau, a transcendentalist, decided to conduct a social experiment of sorts, he moved to a cabin near Walden Pond near Concord in Massachusetts. He wrote about his experiences in a book called ‘Walden’, a fantastic piece on simple living in natural surroundings, searching for ‘savage delight’ of the wilderness.
He explains ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.’
But what was transcendentalism? It was a movement popular in New England, members of the group believed that people are inherently good and that the institutions have corrupted the soul of an individual. Thus, the drive to be away from the constraints from institutions, to become independent, self-reliant, and non-conformist. Transcendentalists didn’t oppose science, but believed the main focus should be on one’s own experiences and beliefs. Curiously, transcendentalists had also a fascination with Indian cultures, which in a way, ties in with esoterism, which was fairly widespread in the 19th century. They had very strong ties to nature, where they could admire and appreciate the natural world, partly for aesthetics, partly as a learning experience. But they were also deeply Christian – despite the distrust towards the organised religion, they believed in direct encounter with God – via nature. They rejected industrialisation as well as materialism and embraced nature and individualism.
Why does New England transcendentalism matter these days? As Nietzsche explains ‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?’ The development of science and enlightenment led many to abandon Christian values. This leads to pessimism and weakness, as he elaborates in The Will to Power. The decline of our civilisation, the ruin of our values, and the misery that ensues – all of this is partly the consequence of enlightenment. And I believe that transcendentalism offers a way out.
Considering that we’ve been in lockdown for almost a year now, without a chance to see other people, or go places, many found consolation in spending time outside, on their own, to reflect on the futility of life. People who lived in houses, spent a large portion of the initial lockdown in their gardens, whilst people living in stuffy flats would go to the beach, a forest, or hiking. We got closer to nature as a result. Even in the US, many moved away from the cities to become countryside dwellers. Naturally, this was partly a side effect of the ability to work from home, but the fact remains – we’ve become closer to nature.
Transcendentalism is attractive because it allows for people to cultivate individualism, so rife these days, but it also encourages exploration of traditional avenues of dealing with politics, life, and culture. It’s the ability to appreciate what you have, looking after the environment, and minimising the influence of the state. It’s the purest form of conservatism, that can and should be embraced by more people. This is what would make conservatism more attractive to many – working hard to advance yourself (individualism), looking after the environment (nature), and minimising the state’s influence (corrupt institutions). Maybe it’s not too late to resurrect transcendentalism?